Wednesday, January 12, 2005

An Army of Compassion

The poor and afflicted from the tsunami as well as the floods have begun to show up on Krishnammal’s doorstep. First there was the man who sold coconuts alongside the edge of the Nagapattinam fishmarket. He was swept up in the wave, a boat over his head, and carried headlong almost a mile inland, where he was dumped against the side of a house. Now without clothing, somehow he managed to stumble onto a bus that took him to Thiruvarar some 40 kilometers away, where he awoke three days later in the public hospital, seven stitches in the back of his head, and various injuries to his neck and shoulders. Miraculously, his wife and three children found him. But now is without any source of income, and since he lives 8 kilometers inland (close to Vinoba Ashram), and he lost no capital or housing, the government doesn’t consider him among the tsunami victims. Krishnammal sits him down for a meal (EVERYONE gets fed), gives him 10 kilograms of rice (with sambar powder!) and two bedsheets, and invites him to join her "army" in three weeks time.
Then there is a fish seller, an old woman, who daily would make the trip to the market, purchase fish, and sell them in the inland villages. She wasn’t there when the tsunami hit, but all her friends were killed, and there are no longer any fish to sell. She too is not considered a tsunami victim, but she and her three children are starving. Her husband is missing. Krishnammal feeds her as well.
A group of four men arrive in the early morning. They are dalits, and have made their living collecting trash weeds and weaving them into beautiful and highly functional baskets into which the fisherfolk would unload their catch. Few of them were in the market when the great wave hit, but they too are starving.
Krishnammal says the stream will become a river. "When they are turned away from government offices, and by the relief agencies, they will come to me," she says, and we will share what we have. If nothing else, we can always provide a good meal."
Meanwhile, LAFTI staff have now counted more than 2,000 individuals in the dalit communities, living close by to the fisherfolk and hardhit by the tsunami, but who have gone unserved by both the government and the international relief agencies. "We don’t even know how many of them died or are missing, as these are people the government often fails to count," she notes. LAFTI will feed them and provide some clothing in the interim, until LAFTI completes and submits its survey to the local government, who will then be charged with taking over.
Aliyah’s friend Mani, from Mumbai, has decided to stay on. She was married at the age of 15, and now, at age 41, both her children are grown. She is a scriptwriter from Mumbai, but has always wanted to devote herself to service work, and says she prefers hard physical labor. "My husband and I have always had an agreement," she says, "that we could go our separate ways when the children were grown. But I have never known where to go. Now I know." She is joining the army of compassion.
A large truck rolled up into the compound today, and unloaded 1,000 pounds of dried red chilies, which are now spread all over two tarps spread out for more drying. They were brought from 200 kilometers a way where, for some reason, chilies cost less than half what they do here. No, we won’t take them on airplanes as dangerous weapons – they are needed for the sambar powder. Lots of it, enough to feed the 1,001 volunteers.
In two days, some 500 people have enlisted. Most of them are dalits. Laborers, masons, carpenters, brickmakers, cooks. Krishnammal has promised, starting in February, to pay them 300 rupees (roughly $7) a month for three months. There will be doctors from abroad to accompany them. And others who will join the army of compassion. They are going to build houses (highest priority!), plant trees, start kitchen gardens, perhaps even help to restore the green belt. Krishnammal has no idea where she will get the money to pay them, but she is convinced it will come.
Last night she was wondering where she would get a lorry to carry all the supplies, the cement, the rice, the mats. Sure enough, this morning her e-mail contains the news of an unexpected check coming from Italy in an amount roughly equivalent to what the lorry will cost.
She also wondered where she was going to find all those bedsheets. (Indians often sleep on the ground, on mats, with a bedsheet on top and bottom). She was thinking of calling friends in Coimbatore, some 300 miles away. Last night at 11 p.m., as I was sleeping in the office, a man all in white came in and asked if he could sleep on the floor. No problem as far as I was concerned – plenty of room. What I didn’t tell him, and which I now think relevant, is that when Bhoomikumar sat down by the computer two hours earlier, he found a snake, which we removed from the premises. I now think getting rid of the snake so that this man could sleep safely was part of "The Plan". He curled up by the side of the computer. When Krishnammal and I came into to check her e-mails and work on her correspondence this morning, he was still stretched out there, in just the spot the snake had been. He woke up, and, it turns out, he is a lawyer from Coimbatore, a friend and follower of Krishnammal, who of course will (we assume) recruit his friends to provide the bed sheets.
So I am going to try this achayapatra thing myself. Several days ago, a crew from Rome TV turned up to interview Krishnammal, just as she was dreaming up her army of compassion. I think it was because they were sent this blog by Overseas, though I do not know for sure.
So I am stretching out my hand. My Partner has blessed me with the opportunity to be here at this time of crisis and trial, with my daughter, and with my Indian family, to bear witness to this unbelievable calamity, but also to begin to put a human face on extraordinary acts of hope, selflessness, and compassion. We leave to return to the U.S. on January 18th, but the army of compassion does not march until February 1st.
So I am stretching out my hand. We need a film journalist (or photo journalist, or just a journalist – I don’t know how much I am allowed to ask for), who can continue the little work Aliyah and I have started here, and can expand it to reach wider audiences who will be as touched and moved as we have been by what we have witnessed here.
If you are out there, you will know who you are.

3 Comments:

Blogger Josh Sawislak said...

Elaine and I have been both amazed and horrified by what you and Aliyah have seen. I have passed along your blog to our circle of friends and hope they have continued to spread it across the global e-community. I also sent the last post specifically to two people (a photographer and film maker) who might be able to place something in your outstreched hand. I will let you know directly (or through Ellen) if I hear back from either. You have our thoughts, prayers, and love.

jbs

7:47 AM, January 12, 2005  
Blogger Becca C said...

I've been following the blog and your amazing experiences since the first post, and I've been moved and fascinated by what you've seen and written. I'm a student at Smith, and a writer for the paper, and would love it if I could interview Aliyah for a story in the first issue after break ends. I've e-mailed the address you provided, and Aliyah's mother answered; I'll keep in touch in the next few weeks. Thank you so much for your time, and for all that you've done.

11:54 PM, January 13, 2005  
Blogger David Albert and Aliyah Shanti said...

I'd like to have an interview for the Sophian when I come back. Thanks for offering. I'll get in touch with you when I get back to Smith. I am going to be raising money at Smith for Amma's housing project.

Thanks for contacting me,

Aliyah

7:45 PM, January 15, 2005  

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